Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy, Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee And his commission to employ those soldiers, So levied as before, against the Polack, With an entreaty, herein further shown, That it might please you to give quiet pass Through your dominions for this enterprise, On such regards of safety and allowance As therein are set down.

Wait, wait – so the King of Norway is so thrilled that his nephew did as he was told that he gave him a boatload of money and orders to start a different war than the one he just almost got in trouble for? You catch your nephew about to bully some kid and tell him to stop. Then, when he does, you give him a hefty allowance and point out some other kid to bully, this time with your permission. This does not strike me as either good parenting or good leadership.

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Which he in brief obeys Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine Makes vow before his uncle never more To give th’assay of arms against your majesty.

This vow is rather specifically personal, it seems to me. The vow to forgo th’assay of arms against his majesty is not a vow to never attack Denmark. Just the current king. Which, frankly, is probably all Claudius really cares about. As long as nobody’s invading his country on his watch, he’s probably not too concerned. But that’s a tentative balance – the previous vow only held true with the previous king and so, with every change in leadership, the vows must be newly tested and then renewed again? This is a very precarious peace.

Whereat grieved, That so his sickness, age and impotence Was falsely born in hand, sends out arrests on Fortinbras;

Fortinbras seems like kind of dick.
He swoops in to attack Denmark over an old argument at the first sign of political shift and tries to do it without his uncle knowing. He makes an attempt to make one preparation for war look like another, so his sick uncle is fooled. It’s kind of treasonous when you get right down to it. But, of course, in a few lines, we’ll see that Fortinbras isn’t punished for this action – just rewarded for stopping it. Spoiled dickish Fortinbras.

Upon our first, he sent out to suppress His nephew’s levies, which to him appeared To be preparation ‘gainst the Polack, But, better looked into, he truly found It was against your highness;

Seems like MANY things could be better looked into.
The default is to glance, to gloss, to glide over things, just let them roll.
Here, a war could have started if someone hadn’t spoken up and the man in charge hadn’t better looked into the situation.

I have been pulling back the curtain over how theatre gets made in America, getting a better look and wishing that, in general, the business were better looked into by people who could do something about it. I feel like Cassandra shouting “Look at this! Look here!” with no recourse to change it.

Most fair return of greetings and desires.

I love formal speech like this. It always has a Star Trekky vibe – a meeting of peoples of different worlds, relying on formality and courtesy to get them through. No one would say something like this casually. It is inevitably accompanied with a stiffness in the body, perhaps a bow, a salute, a curtsy. I think we must read something ancient in this formality. It must be a signal to our reptilian brains somehow. A kind of intentional posturing of “I come in peace.” And I wonder why. Why might formality be reassuring? Is the image of someone restraining themselves, in both speech and body, a signal that they will restrain themselves from violence? Does it broadcast “I am careful. I am in control. I will not draw my sword.”?

In that and all things will we show our duty.

Yes sir sir sir
We have been commanded
Duty bound
Honor bound
Binding in an even tighter knot
With a shorter and shorter lead.
Our will is not our own
Our selves, subsumed in what we are meant to fulfill.
This is what it means to serve:
To disappear
To show nothing but duty
To wink not
To argue not
To question not
To wrestle not
To do as we’re told and make
A show of our obedience.